I admit, being let loose in a sacristy the first time can be like wandering through a costume department in Hollywood. Vestments can be ornate, fabulous, regal—not to mention incredibly heavy, depending on the period they were designed. But what’s most important to recognize is that when first adopted they were a costlier form of the same basic garb worn by the general population.
Ancient Hebrews wore a tunic, gathered with a sash, and a turban. Wool was the primary fabric, but priestly garments were mostly woven of linen and decorated with gold thread and yarns of violet, purple, and scarlet. In addition, high priests wore an overlying robe, squarish, with a hole in the middle to drape over the head, trimmed at the hem in bells and yarn pomegranates. On his head he wore a miter (pointed hat).
When the first Jewish Christians gathered for worship, they assembled in homes and wore no distinguishing clothing. But after the legalization of Christianity in the late 3rd century, formal public worship raised the visibility of the presider and so, too, his vesture. Still, the clothing worn by the presider resembled secular apparel.
First came the alb, a white tunic worn as an undergarment in all social classes. A ropelike cincture held the alb in place around the hips. Next was the chasuble, a more colorful poncho-like covering. Over that was the scarf known as the stole, which may have been a symbol of authoritative office. Then came the dalmatic, a more formal alb worn in the imperial court and reserved for the use of bishops and the deacons who served with them. To the bishop was also reserved the wearing of the miter.
After the 7th century secular fashions advanced, strangely enough, as a result of barbarian invasions which brought down the Empire in the West. But church vesture remained the same, now oddly out of step with what everyone else was wearing. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s inaugurated a return to simplicity in vestments, recommending that their beauty derive from “material and design” rather than “lavish ornamentation” (say good-bye to bells and pomegranates!). The continued use of vestments links our celebrations with those of previous generations and enhances the dignity of our assembly—as dressing in “our Sunday best” always has.
• Exodus 28, 29, and 39; Leviticus 8; Ezekiel 44:15-19
• General Instruction of the Roman Missal, nos. 335-347
• The Symbols of the Church by Maurice Dilasser (Liturgical Press, 1999)
• The Mass and Vestments of the Catholic Church, Liturgical, Doctrinal, Historical, and Archaeological by John Walsh (General Books LLC, 2010; pay-to-download site)
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